Alive to the situation

I’ve seen some believers recently repost a story about a church that wasn’t able to meet together in their building, so they met at a local Walmart. Rather than celebrate with them this act of holy rebellion, I have some questions. Sure, it reflects a complete lack of understanding of the risk levels of worship and whether a church’s practices make a store or restaurant a poor comparison. But my concern is deeper: I wonder if anyone in Walmart that day was attracted to the gospel because of this improvised service. Was it the aroma of Christ to those employees and customers? Was that even on the minds of the church leaders?

My frustration during the second phase of this pandemic is that many churches are hyper-focusing on their rights and their comforts rather than equipping their people for these unique times. They’re focusing internally on whether and how they can hold services, when their congregants are lost to know how on earth they can live out the gospel within our socially-distanced, cancel culture. Few church leaders are speaking to how we can advance the mission right now in spite of, through and because of COVID.

I wonder if it reflects a mind block among leaders—something that is not limited to church pastors. Let me explain.

This is the greatest opportunity in our lifetimes for the Church. Rather than try our best to get back to the halcyon days of February 2020, we need to look for what doors God is opening right now. Churches need to realize this isn’t going away soon, and lesser imitations will only make people crave the old days, the old ways. Once church leaders cross the bridge in their thinking—that we won’t be back to normal on November 4, or even a year from now—then they’ll start seeing the opportunities. What opportunities? I’m glad you asked.

First, we have the same opportunities that the Church had in 1918-1920, when Christians died serving their communities in spite of risks of Spanish Flu. The parallels are clear. Governments today are following the same pattern of lockdowns, quarantines and masks. Churches had similarly-diverse responses: while some pushed back on religious freedom grounds, others got busy serving. These examples in Nashville, Tennessee, and in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, are inspiring: when in-person church services were shut down, Church of Christ and Episcopal pastors offered their buildings as field hospitals. A.B. Lipscomb wrote in the Gospel Advocate that the epidemic had “opened up a way for the enlargement of the sympathies of Christian people.”

In South Dakota, the 1919 conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church report notes:

Immediately after the conference last fall (1918), the churches were closed on account of the influenza, some for several weeks, and some for several months. This enforced vacation gave our pastors an unusual opportunity to minister to the people in their need and their sorrow. Almost without exception the pastors were alive to the situation and cared for the sick, carrying them cheer and comfort, and in hundreds of cases, burying the dead, some pastors conducting as many as 40 funerals during the ravages of this awful epidemic.

Probably 70-75 percent of the pastors or their families were stricken with the disease, but there was not a death in one of the parsonage homes in the district, and of the unusually large number of funerals conducted by our pastors during this time, it was most remarkable that our church members constituted a comparatively small percentage of the total number.

Capital Journal, Mar 19, 2020

Second, this is an enormous opportunity to adapt our model. I’m waiting for churches to begin truly innovating. In the early days of COVID, when churches had to scramble because they were suddenly locked down, there was some experimentation. Churches tweaked their practices out of necessity. But going to online streaming, virtual communion and squirting holy water isn’t really innovation; most of it could be categorized as lesser imitations of the original.

Let’s look at a parallel. To walk into most restaurants today is a depressing situation. Tables are marked off and furniture stacked in a corner. Hastily-improvised plexiglass screens are hung around the register, ordering counter or concierge desk. These adjustments have all the markings of an expectation that this is a short-term inconvenience. If restaurants in urban centers are struggling, you can imagine how challenging it is for an island setting, so imagine my surprise when my wife and I walked into The Groove Kitchen + Cafe in Mayne Island, BC last week.

The owner shared with us about how difficult the past few months have been for their business, and they almost didn’t make it. Hearing his story, I fully intended to tip well. So, when I went to pay and there was no opportunity to add a tip, I asked. He asked me, “What would you be tipping for?” They’ve reduced their services and costs so much that he believes tipping would be unreasonable. They’ve streamlined their staff from 14 to 2. No dishes to wash. All ordering goes through their website, with customers encouraged to order ahead of time and given the opportunity to eat on site, pick up the prepared order, or grab pre-packaged ingredients and cook the menu at home. All their seating is outside, and they used the inside space to launch a specialty grocery store for the items in their menu and ingredients unavailable elsewhere on the island.

The owner told me he wished they’d made these changes years ago. “We’ll never go back!”

Innovation is coming to our industries. If existing restaurants, stores, businesses and congregations don’t get there, new upstarts certainly will. We know the Church will go on for another generation, but it may not be traditional churches that do, or even church plants that do their best imitation of the the model that has been successful in the past decade. The question is who is going to get there first?

I submit that it will the leaders who stop lamenting the way church was done and seek out the new opportunities in this virus and ways to do things differently. They’ll draw the best ideas from other industries, and they’ll create some fresh interpretations of ancient practices. Some of these ideas will fail, but a new model will surely emerge from their efforts. Some of them will see the new version and conclude, “We’ll never go back!”

Leaders aren’t fruit-bearers

What is your leadership philosophy? If you were to take a hard look at your approach to the organizational unit you give leadership to, which of these images best portrays your style?

A Jabuticaba (left), a Coconut Palm (middle) or an Orange Tree (right)?

My leadership style is more like the orange tree. I don’t believe leaders are fruit-bearers, but fruit-cultivators. Let me explain.

My board says that the performance of the organization is equivalent to the performance of the president. That’s a huge job! Certainly it’s a heavier load than one person can carry. So my job is to peel parts of the role away and delegate them to competent people. Then my primary role becomes serving them and making them successful.

As I’ve reflected on this view of leadership, I realized a few things.

1. Fruit shouldn’t grow on the trunk. In a smaller organization or unit, a leader might be busy doing a lot of the work himself or herself. There may be exceptions, but my experience is that even in early stages of organizational growth, a successful leader will not hold onto activities long. Even the youngest orange trees don’t produce oranges next to the trunk. I constantly catch myself engaging in activities I enjoy doing, but which hold up the work of my leadership team, who need my help or energy to fulfill their roles. If I’m really successful at building my team, they will ask me why I’m doing a job rather than delegating it.

2. Building trust is my main line of work. As the primary trunk of the organization, I am uniquely able to spot healthiness and manage communication and resource flow so that I starve or prune leafy limbs and branches that demand resources without producing fruit, while feeding limbs and branches that are capable of producing results (Luke 13:6-9). Any activity that strengthens the cohesiveness of the tree and empowers the supporting limbs is well worth my attention. People often ask me how I get any work done with all the meetings I have to go to. My response is that my real work happens in meetings, because meetings are often the vehicle by which trust is built, communication flows best and a group can move forward together.

3. Leadership grows limbs. Any time I can create a new junction of smaller branches that spread out, the chance of fruit is highest. If I can spur ideas or get people together who can spark new thinking, I’ve best fulfilled my role.

I don’t know about you, but I think that Jabuticaba tree looks wrong. As a metaphor, it reflects an inverted leadership style where the limbs and leafs simply exist to bring resources to the fruit-bearing centre. That centralized style of leadership will leave followers feeling used while wearing out the leader who, as central to every initiative, will become the limiting factor.

Pentecost: When Peter’s world changed

In my last post, I discussed how COVID has shifted our world fundamentally in the economy, the nature of government, the charitable sector and international relations. Into that volatile mix—and since I published that blog post—a new force for change is sweeping the U.S. and is spilling over to Canada and Europe: the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd have exposed faultlines around systemic, long-term issues of race and equality. The early indications are that long-silent voices have taken this moment to say, “Enough!” We don’t know yet how these protests will shift the direction already being set in motion by COVID. I think my thoughts here are still relevant.

My previous example of a change of eras might seem extreme; the tectonic shifts we’re facing may be big, but they’re existential and therefore much more difficult to define than a global flood. So let’s look at an example centered around the day of Pentecost we just celebrated: Peter in the first few chapters of Acts.

As a student of leadership, I’m fascinated by the transformation in Peter between his betrayal of Jesus and his emergence as bold leader in Acts 2. He’s just been restored by Jesus in John 21 and given a new commission to feed His sheep, but if he’s to take up the mantle of leadership, he feels lacking. So what does he do? 

First, he compresses a few years’ worth of Bible school into one month. Consider the following. 

  • We know Jesus has just spent 40 days opening his followers’ minds to the Scriptures and interpreting what the Old Testament passages said about himself (Luke 24:27,45). I suspect Peter was a sponge, soaking up everything Jesus could offer him.
  • After Jesus leaves the disciples, we know they spend their days in the temple, worshiping (Luke 24:52). And we know a group of them return to the upper room in Jerusalem, devoting themselves to prayer together (Acts 1:13-14). 
  • When Peter finally speaks up in Acts 1 and 2, the frequency with which he tosses out references to Psalm 69, Psalm 109, Joel 2, Psalm 16 and Psalm 110 reflect the way he’s used his time. He couldn’t just flip to the various pages in his Bible; he has likely memorized these passages after hours devouring the scrolls at a synagogue or the temple library.

Then in Acts 2, the day of Pentecost, it’s showtime. The Holy Spirit falls and gives the believers everything Jesus promised: power, gifting, a message and supernatural linguistic ability. With 3,000 new followers, Peter has to figure out what exactly Jesus meant when he charged him to “Feed my sheep.” What was their religious practice going to look like? There are no models for the Church. I’d be very surprised if Jesus spelled out to Peter what church governance and structure he should use. It’s up to Peter and his colleagues to contextualize. As they do this, the sand is shifting under their feet. Peter will have to draw on all of his preparation to meet the needs, challenges and opportunities that are on his doorstep. 

That’s what makes Peter’s era so relevant to leadership today. Let’s look at a few points of application we can draw out of these early days of the Church, as we consider our own place, on the threshold of the post-COVID world, and the frustrations spilling out on the streets. Maybe this is our day of Pentecost.

1. Establish patterns of discernment and attentiveness

There’s a sense of anticipation about Acts 1. Jesus said to remain in Jerusalem until the Holy Spirit comes. Jesus made it clear that Peter’s education would continue after Jesus’ departure, as the Holy Spirit would remind him of all that Jesus said and teach him all things (John 14:26). So the disciples position themselves in the familiar confines of the upper room. These first believers establish an early pattern of devoting themselves to prayer and fellowship (Acts 2:42), and the apostles will later commit themselves to prayer and the ministry of the Word (Acts 6:4). 

The combination of prayer and the ministry of the Word isn’t just about preaching; it includes searching the Old Testament Scriptures and finding application to their situations. That’s what Peter does in Acts 1 when he quotes two Scriptures to support his decision that they should replace Judas among the Twelve. He does it again in the next chapter when he interprets the Spirit’s work at Pentecost as the fulfillment of Joel’s prophecy. 

In a conversation recently about these ideas with leadership consultant Jonathan Wilson  (read more at Lead by Soul), he told me:

one prepares for the future by understanding (or more accurately, discerning) the present. And that’s where Christians have resources that others don’t have, because not only can we do the necessary work of observing and interpreting the various socio-cultural and political dynamics unfolding before us, we have both the Spirit’s enlightening presence as well as theological tools of, e.g. thinking about worldviews and assumptions, about understanding needs, fears and desires, the way societies operate “in the flesh”, etc., that others don’t or can’t readily access. 

Rhythms of discernment and attentiveness are best established before crisis—when intentions are easily discarded and habits remain firmly in place.

2. Hold assumptions loosely

At first, the early Church seems to believe Jesus is coming back right away, perhaps based on Jesus’ ambiguous statements about his return (e.g. John 21:22). To me, that assumption best explains the earliest practices of the Church. They are continually at the temple, praising God (Luke 24:53, Acts 2:46). No need to work, but they do need to eat, so they start selling possessions (Acts 2:45). Their communal living and having everything in common sounds idyllic, but would not be a sustainable model for the future church. 

As each day passes without Christ’s return, the Church leaders have to deal with increasingly complex problems. They need to begin equipping believers for working and living in an increasingly-hostile environment. They shock the community by deploying church discipline (Acts 5). They are forced to find a structure that allows the movement to scale appropriately (Acts 6). They have to start establishing rules and order to these church services. This requires constant re-evaluation of assumptions. 

It’s the same for us today. Strategy and plans that were developed before the pandemic need a critical look to see if they’re relevant anymore. Activities need to be weighed against criteria, such as whether they’re essential to accomplishing the mission and whether they’re the best way to approach something in light of the new realities. All of these assessments start by holding our assumptions loosely, or even deliberately questioning them. 

Wilson says that this is the moment for organizations to use a

combination of strategy and agile methodologies to engage in adaptation and, even, eventually, self-reinvention. It’s actually too early to truly reinvent, as we don’t know what we’re reinventing for, but it isn’t too early to build the capacity and capabilities for quick adaptation that, coupled with the kind of “discerning the times” I mentioned above, equip an organization to reinvent over time.

3. Reframe setbacks as opportunities

The idyllic model for Church of the first few chapters of Acts is built around the favour of the people and the government (Acts 2:47). Persecution, on the other hand, is an external disrupter, scattering the believers. A Church that risked becoming insular and territorial is suddenly thrust into fulfilling Jesus’ mission in Acts 1:8—witnessing throughout Judea and Samaria (Acts 8:1-4). The movement continues to grow in the face of adversity. 

But these shifts bring new grey areas. Now the leaders of the Church need to either establish central control, managing the dispersed Church from Jerusalem, or embrace polycentric ministry, with multiple centres of influence. A combination of factors, such as a coming famine (Acts 11:27-30) and the killing and imprisonment of leaders in Jerusalem (Acts 12:1-5) invert power and allow the dispersed church to minister back up to the mother church.

What new things is God doing right now through COVID? What new doors is he opening that you never dreamed could happen? How do you reframe for your followers the setbacks we’ve faced? Shifting the narrative, and the thought processes behind the stories we tell, is critical to the path your organization will take: either merely trying to revert to normal or keeping the good things that have emerged while remaining open to new ways of structuring and operating for the future.

4. Never stand in God’s way

Then the Holy Spirit leads the Church to expand to include the Gentiles (Acts 10-11). Between a new satellite location in Antioch and Paul’s missionary journeys, a mixed church arises, based on a new identity in Christ rather than race, culture or caste (Gal 3:28). The church council meeting in Acts 15 is a pivotal moment in the Church as they decide whether they will truly become global or remain an offshoot of Judaism.

How does the Church respond? Look at the phrases I highlighted in the following statements and actions:

  • In Acts 10, when the Jewish-background believers are “astonished that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on Gentiles,” Peter asks, “Surely no one can stand in the way of their being baptized with water. They have received the Holy Spirit just as we have.” (Acts 10:45,47)
  • When he faces criticism, he then asks: “So if God gave them the same gift he gave us who believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I to think that I could stand in God’s way?” (Acts 11:17)
  • After Paul explains to the Council of Jerusalem that Gentiles are hearing and believing, James concludes they would not make it difficult for the Gentiles who turn to God (Acts 15:19).

All of these phrases are about control. When the Holy Spirit is moving, and your assumptions are challenged, it’s a great principle to not get on the wrong side of an issue if God is on the other side. Rather than standing on principles and trying to fit God into your dogma, rewrite your principles around the movement of God.

So here we are, just after Pentecost, facing an unknown future. What can you do today to prepare yourself for the ambiguity ahead, and the movement of God that seems to accelerate when we stand between eras? Through the help of the Holy Spirit, Peter and his fellow leaders got a lot of decisions right. I pray He helps you do the same.

 

A new world

It’s easy to look out the window and see a world where it seems nothing has really changed. Maybe we’ll soon be able to return to normal, right? For many of us, that’s our deepest longing. But I believe the profound change in four fundamental areas can’t help but lead to a deep, deep change to the world we’ve known:

  1. The economy. Most western governments have acted like they have unlimited bank accounts to roll out programs. How will they pay for it? With austerity? With taxation? Or printing money? Or further stimulus to speed up the velocity of money? How many quarters, or how many years, will this impact our economy, and what will the implications be?
  2. The nature of government itself. How much risk should the government protect its citizens and businesses from? How extensive a safety net is going to be constructed? How will governments use or abuse contact tracing and health tracking? What liberties will citizens demand back from their governments?
  3. The charitable sector. Giving has been or will eventually be impacted by unemployment, increased government handouts, the up-and-down stock market and the continued threat to vulnerable populations. For non-profits and charities, all of these factors are bound to affect current and potential workforce, as well as philanthropy and generosity. Likely, impacts will come in waves. Where charities fail, who will step in to meet needs and fulfill charitable purposes?
  4. International relations. Closed borders, anti-foreigner resentment, tracking of citizens, visa restrictions and localization are just some of the factors that will impact travel and delivery of services around the world. For an organization that engages in sending expatriate missionaries as well as contributing funds for local projects, our priorities and strategies may need to shift.

“These are unprecedented times.” How many times have you heard someone say that? How many times have you said those words? While this particular alignment of factors may be unique, it is naive to believe no one else has faced such profound levels of change. Over a few blog posts, I want to draw out some lessons from three biblical characters that I believe are relevant today. Today, let’s look at Noah.

In some ways, we’re in a similar place as Noah in Genesis 8:4. After he and his immediate family have been on the ark for 5 months, they experience a great grinding shudder as the ark beaches itself on Mount Ararat. The immediate crisis over, it’s now time to look out the window. The earth Noah is returning to is the same one he left, but it is now going to be unrecognizable. Everything has changed. 

Perhaps these changes will prove to have only short-term consequences; the land below our ark is still drying up and taking form. But I believe it’s more than that. The similarities we see between the world outside our window and the world we left in March are only surface-deep. If we don’t prepare ourselves for what’s changed, we will miss opportunities as leaders. Here are a few thoughts.

1. The next six months will be a slow and often-frustrating re-emergence.

Land! I can imagine Noah’s eagerness to get off the ark. But the beaching of the ark was just the first step of restoration. They had to wait for the water to recede: to see the tops of the mountains, for the land to solidify, for greenery to emerge. Until that happened, they stayed in their lockdown. You know how long that was? Another 7 months and 10 days. I can’t imagine the patience that took!

As provinces and states are rolling out re-opening plans, each of our experiences across North America will look different. There will be inequities, delays and setbacks that test our patience, our contentment and our ability to follow those God has put in authority over us. Those we lead will need help with those frustrations, even as we struggle with our own responses. 

In a recent Zoom call with other leaders, one suggested that we haven’t faced our real leadership challenges yet; the next phase will require much greater leadership than the crisis phase. Ahead of us are many gray areas, many consequential decisions, and many existential choices that will redefine our ministries, organizations and businesses. But he also specifically mentioned navigating a world that is polarized and splintering, and a Church that is too quick to embrace conspiracy theories. He was considering how to proactively prepare his staff to be discerning without assuming they’ll take the wrong path.

2. This is not a blip that we need to survive; it’s a re-ordering of the way things have been. 

Whether you work for a for-profit or non-profit, your mission and vision are still relevant, and you have work to do. But strategy and plans that were developed before the pandemic need to be weighed against criteria to see whether they’re essential to accomplishing the mission and whether they’re the best way to approach something in light of the new realities.

Some observers are saying that the quicker organizations can throw out previous assumptions and strategy and develop new strategy consistent with who they are, the better they will be positioned for success. There are new opportunities coming that were not even possible a month ago that we need to prepare for. My fear is that my organization will fill our plans and budgets with activities that are based on old assumptions and leave no room to develop new ideas that take advantage of opportunities that arise. That’s where leadership is required. 

3. New realities require different competencies.

There’s no indication in Genesis of what Noah’s competencies were before God asked him to build an ark. Think of the competencies required to build such a large sea-going structure. Think of the entirely different set of competencies required to manage a floating zoo for a year. Think of those necessary to re-establish infrastructure, cultivate the land and defend from nature in the new world. Individuals have competencies, and teams have collective competencies. A team, and a leader, must ask whether the competencies that served well in the past are still relevant for the context they will face in the future.

It may require a restructure to make that shift, but it’s also possible to pivot, as Moah and his sons did. For instance:

  • At the 2008 Catalyst conference in Atlanta, Andy Stanley shared a question he considers on a regular basis:

“If we got kicked out and the board brought in a new CEO, what would he do? Why shouldn’t we walk out the door, come back in, and do it ourselves?”— Only the Paranoid Survive, Andy Grove

  • John Pellowe, president of the Canadian Council of Christian Charities, says his secret for serving in the role 17 years is self reflection. Every five years he asks himself what the organization needs for the next five years, evaluates whether he fits the criteria and then creates a personal and professional development plan to reinvent his leadership to become the leader the organization needs. Read more of his thoughts about Keeping your leadership fresh on his blog.

What kind of competencies do we need right now for this uncertain future? I’m going with futuring, forward thinking, asking good questions that challenge assumptions, performance management and metrics. Let me know if you have some others to add to that list.

Rest assured that, if you are in a leadership position, it is by God’s design. You may not know what to do—there is no model for the circumstances we’re facing—but He who put you in your position will help you as you call on him. God bless you as you lead in these extraordinary times. They may not be unprecedented, but they certainly demand leadership!

The Bible speaks to isolation

One of the things that constantly amazes me about the Scriptures is their relevance to every situation we face. The Bible speaks to every generation, to every era, to every situation. It doesn’t speak in the same way, and contextualization gives new appreciation for passages that were always there but didn’t speak to us in a previous context, or didn’t speak to a previous generation the way it does today.

That means, even though I’ve never thought about isolation before, I knew before I even looked that I’d find relevant passages to our context today. It turns out there are loads of examples in Scripture. Here are a few that I’ve been reflecting on:

  • What was it like for Noah to spend a year and ten days on the ark with his immediate family? What load of grief did he carry for the earth’s population who lost their lives? What trauma did he carry from hearing the screams of those outside the door of the ark? He certainly had lots to do, in his floating zoo, but a year in a small space is a long time! (Genesis 6-9)
  • What was it like for a normal, healthy person in Jesus’ day to suddenly get infected with leprosy? The instructions of Leviticus 13 include going to a front-line worker, a priest, and being quarantined for 14 days before being forced to live alone. How devastating it would be to be cut off from one’s family and pushed away from society! These castaways often formed a new community of the marginalized, with perhaps their only commonality being their shared illness. (Episode 6 of The Chosen has an amazing depiction of Jesus interacting with a leper.)
  • What was it like for Paul to transition from an active missionary lifestyle to sudden confinement in prison? Acts 20 and 21 describe the premonition Paul had that imprisonment and affliction awaited him, and show that he was thinking about end of life issues. It wasn’t easy for Paul. Once imprisoned, Jesus paid him a visit at night telling him to take courage and helping him say on mission (Acts 23:11). As an unmarried single, he talked a lot about his desire to see those he loved. He eventually settled into life as a WFH author (working from home).
  • What was it like for a young Joseph, whose plans and career trajectory were disrupted by sudden injustice not once but twice—first, when his brothers sold him into slavery, and second, when he was falsely accused by Potiphar’s wife? He found himself confined to the royal prison. Yet, even there, “the Lord was with Joseph and showed him steadfast love and gave him favor” (Gen 39:21). (Story in Genesis 37-41)

I encourage you to mine these examples and send me the insights and applications God uncovers as you look at them again through the eyes of isolation and physical distancing. God’s Word is alive!

Seeing with spiritual eyes

What did you hear from God?

That’s the question I anticipate others wondering after I’ve taken a full day in solitude and prayer. It is no easy thing to take that much time in a busy period, and it’s painful to consider coming away with nothing tangible. When spiritual expectations are high, leaders have a strong temptation to make something up rather than admit they didn’t hear anything.

I wonder if the reason that no great prayer is recorded in Exodus 17 is that, up on that mountain, Moses is more focused on listening than speaking. In my experience, a day of prayer includes both sending and receiving. I would expect that, as a friend of God (Ex 33:11), any conversation between Moses and God would have been two-way. It’s possible the words aren’t recorded because they are not as important as what Moses is hearing and seeing.

Continuing the discussion of my last blog, in this post I want to consider a second line of thought:

B. What should I see that is not visible?

What does Moses see? When he reports back after his day on the mountain, it’s clear that he has seen some things that went way beyond what played out before him in the valley. When the battle is over, God tells Moses to write down a record, and recite it in the ears of Joshua, of what seems to be God’s plans over centuries (Ex 17:14,16). God has revealed His purposes, pulling Moses out of the present and into His mind for the nations and eras. This will prove to be merely the first battle with Amalek, and it will be a war that carries on from generation to generation. Eventually, someday, Amalek’s memory will be blotted out, but not before continual attempts to “wipe [Israel] out as a nation” (Ps 83:4)

It’s chilling to consider how this will come true in later passages of Scripture.

  • When the Israelites first listen to the ten spies instead of Caleb’s and Joshua’s advice, then change their minds and try to enter the promised land in their own strength, it’s Amalek who decisively defeats them (Num 14:45). Amalek relishes its role when Israel is at its weakest.
  • They will feature in almost every attempt to destroy David’s messianic line. For instance, it’s Amalek who kidnap David’s wives and children at Ziklag (1 Sam 30).
  • It should be no surprise that Haman, the man who led the most blatant effort at anti-Semitic genocide, was descended from an Amalekite king (1 Sam 15:7, Esther 9:24).
  • Moses’ reflection on this moment in Deuteronomy 25:19 takes on modern relevance when he says, “you shall blot out the name of Amalek from under heaven. Do not forget!”

In fact blotting out Amalek is exactly what Samuel commands King Saul to do in 1 Samuel 15:2-3. God tells him to devote the Amalekites to destruction and annihilate them because of the ambush of Israel in Exodus 17. When Saul lets some of them live, failing to carry out God’s “fierce wrath against Amalek” (1 Sam 28:18), God rejects Saul as king.

So this isn’t a run-of-the-mill, single, flesh-and-blood battle. Moses is tuned into an epic battle between the spiritual forces taking place behind the scenes. None of it was visible to anyone else.

In my last post, I mentioned three responsibilities of a leader in his or her intercession:

1. Gaps

2. Traps

3. Opps

To that list, I want to add another:

4. Insights

Seeing the invisible

A leader can gain several levels of insight as he prays. It may be long-term perspective, or spiritual underpinnings, or prophetic revelation. A key factor is the leader’s practiced sensitivity to God’s voice—which largely comes from personal spiritual disciplines such as solitude and silence, reflective practices like examen, and discernment practices such as consolation and desolation. It also comes from a commitment to courageous responsiveness to any direction received from God.

How does a leader develop that kind of sensitivity? For most of us, it doesn’t come easily. Some leaders have more of a prophetic or priestly approach to leadership; I have more of an kingly bent. What’s more, I didn’t have much practice in these disciplines before I stepped into the top job at Wycliffe Canada. Motivated by an overwhelming hunger for God’s presence, knowing that a large organization was too heavy a load for me to carry (Num 11:14), and a longing for the wisdom that comes from God (James 1:5), I was grateful when a board member introduced me to Ruth Haley Barton. Her book, Strengthening the Soul of your Leadership, drew out lessons from Moses’ life—how his own 40 years in the wilderness prepared him to lead a nation through the wilderness for 40 years. Encouraged by her prior book, Sacred Rhythms, I began to try to put into practice Moses’ rhythms of seeking God, spending time with Him and turning to Him in frustration, weariness, and anguish.

Her next book, Pursuing God’s Will Together, led me in leading a team to sharpen our ability together to listen and pay attention to how God speaks: as Scripture comes alive; as we notice His activity and presence; as we sense His peace and consolation in a decision; as He draws our attention to facts we might have missed; or as we examine a check in our spirit, a sense of desolation.

I’m still not great at it. If I’m not in practice, I lose the ability to receive from the Lord. But I’m committed to listening for God’s voice and insights. It’s a discipline that’s critical for my spiritual authority as a leader. I’m only worth following as I follow Him.

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Moses on the Mountain series:

Praying with eyes open

Why did Moses go up on the mountain in Exodus 17:8-16? Everyone who’s ever attended Sunday School will tell you he’s praying, but the passage doesn’t actually say it. The only thing we know is Moses’ hand positions, and the resulting impact on Joshua’s gains or losses. The account of what happened on the mountain was written later and second-hand, by someone who was a distant and distracted observer on that day.

As I mentioned in a previous post, Moses will soon establish a pattern of praying in a tent  (Ex 33:7-11), but he doesn’t head for his tent this time; instead, he climbs a mountain. Joshua can understand that instinct. After all, a military man like him would see elevation for its strategic advantage—for reconnaissance purposes, artillery placement (arrows or stones) or infantry positioning. The common thread is that any of those options requires communication of some sort, and Moses and Joshua make no signalling plans. Moses has a different strategic purpose in mind, and a different form of communication.

There’s only one reason to go up on a mountain to pray: clearly, Moses intends to have his eyes open. On the mountain, he is helpless and completely dependent to act save for a single priceless weapon: a direct connection to the Almighty. If he sees an ambush or an advantage, his only recourse is prayer.

In Moses’ day, the only way to have the full picture, to see the scope of the battle, was to gain elevation. In today’s world, there are so many other ways we can broaden our view. I believe this is one of the indispensable roles of a leader.

My studies of this passage have led me to refine my times of prayer as a leader. I start with two questions prompted by Moses as he stood on that mountain with eyes open, hands lifted up and no temptation to action.

A. What can I see that others don’t?
B. What should I see that is not visible?

I’ll cover the first one here.

Seeing what others don’t

There’s an old adage that a leader is the one climbing the tallest tree, surveying the situation and concluding, “We’re in the wrong forest.” Leaders have a mandate to see the bigger picture and assess the situation, but they also have the privilege of access to a more complete set of data than anyone else.

Strategic prayer is prayer with knowledge. It’s significant that the intercessor in Exodus 17 is the one who can observe the entire scope of the situation and direct his attention accordingly. No one else can see the big picture the way a leader can. Therefore, she should pray for the larger issues, the deeper underlying themes, rather than the obvious surface-level requests. Where she sees with spiritual eyes—because she takes the time to ask and look—she prays for what others can’t see. She can sometimes pray with confidential knowledge of world events.

Don’t shy away from connecting the pieces. Ask the Lord, “How should my prayers be directed?” And, “What can I pray about that others don’t or can’t?”

There are three advantages and responsibilities that come with the vantage point of leadership.

1. Gaps. From above, it’s easy to see the gaps and weaknesses that open up in battle lines. I can pray for reinforcements, and I can pray for healing for the sick, strength for the weak, encouragement for the fainthearted, justice for the oppressed and comfort for the afflicted (Ez 34:4,16, 1 Thess 5:14, Ps 10:17-18, 2 Cor 1:3-4).

2. Traps. I can also see ambushes and traps. I can pray for shielding, for cover, for light to overcome darkness and truth to expose lies. I can pray for other leaders, that they would not give Satan a foothold.

3. Opps. Weaknesses in the opponent’s strategies are laid bare, and I can see where my team is making breakthroughs. I can add my prayers behind initiatives pressing the advantage. I can pray for unity, love, confession, forgiveness, mutual submission and truth as proactive moves against Satan’s strategies of division, accusation and deception.

During my quarterly days of prayer, I have taken to posting sheets of paper on the wall and labeling them with these categories. As God shows me something in each of these areas, I write it down so I have a takeaway, and perhaps an action point.

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Moses on the Mountain series:

Looking over your shoulder

As we continue exploring Exodus 17:8-16, I want to turn our attention to the foot of the hill and the young leader who steps into the spotlight for the first time. Joshua is designated by Moses to lead the forces of Israel in their first battle. They go on to route a larger army that is better prepared and has every advantage.

Of course, we know why he really won. My question is whether Joshua figured out the secret of his success. Could he see the three men silhouetted on the hill? Did he wonder what they were up to? Did he eventually logic out that it wasn’t whether he did anything great on his own, but whether Moses’ arms were raised? Did he have one eye on his present situation and one checking behind him to see Moses’ posture? And, in doing so, begin to work with God?

Clearly, the story doesn’t tell us. We can only guess, because so many details are left out of the story of Joshua. For a man who featured so heavily in the story of Moses, who then becomes leader of Israel for 27 years and even has a book named after him, we know surprisingly little. We don’t know if he ever married. We don’t know his back story. And we don’t know his thoughts or fears.

Knowing Joshua’s confidence level would give insight into whether he figured out his role in the successful battle that day. An overconfident leader would conclude that it was all about his great strategy—only to discover at the debrief that he had very little to do with it (v14). A leader unsure of himself would spend too much time looking over his shoulder at Moses, to see if he was doing it right and to watch Moses’ hand positions. Which one describes this young leader of 30 or 40 in his public debut?

Joshua’s back story

A leader’s confidence is so often tied to his or her back story. Great books like Dan Allender’s, Leading with a Limp, urge us to lead out of who we are, and to embrace the brokenness in us that comes from prior experiences. But what was Joshua’s back story? We simply don’t know where he was prior to Exodus 17:9.

We know he lived in Egypt. Given the role Moses offers him, there’s a good chance he had some form of military background in Egypt.

We know he participated in the first 17 1/2 chapters of Exodus. But that simply leads to more questions about how he developed his leadership aptitude.

  • Where was he among the skeptical Hebrew leaders in Egypt when Moses first showed up with a message from God (Ex 4:29-31)?
  • Where was he when the foremen complained to Moses that he had made them a stink in the sight of Pharaoh, who ended the distribution of straw in retaliation (Ex 5:21)?
  • Where was he in the exodus from Egypt, that night when Moses had to signal to an entire nation that it was time to leave?
  • Where was he in the crossing of the Red Sea, as the people nervously paced the beach, watching the dust rise from chariot wheels?
  • Where was he when the people were grumbling?
  • Where was he in the first half of this chapter, when the people were ready to stone Moses?

Leaders don’t burst on the scene fully developed, so there are two possibilities.

Perhaps Joshua was an emerging leader, beginning to catch Moses’ eye by taking on unmentioned roles—helping mobilize the people on Passover night, vigilant on the beach beside the Red Sea as the pillar of fire kept the Egyptian army at bay, a loyalist giving encouragement to Moses.

Or, Joshua was already in some kind of leadership position and had to choose to come under Moses’ authority. Note in the paragraph above that those in established positions were not always on Moses’ side. In fact, the first seven verses of Exodus 17 tell us that not everyone was part of “Team Moses.” There was an insurrection brewing. Which side was Joshua on?

In other words, if Moses wasn’t the one to first draw out Joshua as a leader, when did the young man convert from critic to loyalist?

Whatever the back story, in this moment Moses trusts Joshua implicitly. Joshua is thrown into the deep end and finds himself leading a battle. Soon Joshua will become indispensable to Moses.

With those musings as a foundation, let’s get to a few points of application.

1. Leaders are followers first. Godly leadership takes a conversion from the role of skeptic, critic and grumbler who wishes he was in charge, to a new role as a loyalist who surrenders to God’s leadership.

2. Our best strategy is to participate with God in his purposes. Did Joshua’s strategies even matter to the battle? What would have happened if Joshua had laid down his weapons? Would he still have prevailed? There’s a lesson here about why God so often only lets us see the big picture after the fact. Somehow, in some way, our efforts and strategies do matter, but so often the real results come from a spiritual strategy or prayer. We take great risks when we foray out on our own without that foundation.

3. We need to give young leaders space. There’s a risk with young or inexperienced leaders. They may be put in the driver’s seat, but they spend all their time looking back over their shoulder to see if they’re doing it right, if they have their superior’s or mentor’s approval. That’s where, if the one with the authority has another job to do, it creates space. Whatever Joshua’s back story was, Moses took a calculated gamble. Rather than lurking around as an observer, Moses goes where he can’t possibly grab the controls. He’s occupied elsewhere. Yet, he still does everything he can to make Joshua successful.

I believe Joshua figured out where his success was coming from. The clue is in the absence of detail about what Moses was saying on the mountain. While most of Moses’ prayers, speeches and arguments with God were meticulously recorded, Moses’ biographer was otherwise occupied on this day. Joshua recorded faithfully the only detail he could see: the posture of Moses’ hands. It gave him the courage to apply his leadership on the ground.


Moses on the Mountain series:

Predictable unpredictability

On a surface-level reading of Exodus 17:8-16, it seems like Moses hands the reigns to Joshua, saying, “You go fight. I’m going to grab my hiking stick and climb that mountain.” Moses feels no need to explain himself to Joshua, or to us. Why did no one protest or ask questions? I certainly have a few!

The risks of delegation

At this point in the Exodus story, Moses’ track record leading his own people is fairly brief. Since the day he reappeared from 40 years’ solitude in the wilderness, the people’s relationship with their untested leader has been running hot and cold. Their gratefulness and worship in Exodus 4:31 quickly turns to accusation by 5:21 when Pharaoh takes his anger out on the people. Moses then manages a series of crises—some of which he provoked. A few weeks after the highs of the miraculous Red Sea crossing (Ex 14), the people are ready to mutiny and stone Moses to death (Ex 17:4). And it won’t be long before the people give up on Moses when he spends six weeks on Mt. Sinai (Ex 24, 32). There’s a surprising arms-length detachment in their assessment of him in Exodus 32:1: “As for this fellow Moses who brought us up out of Egypt, we don’t know what has happened to him.”

What kind of leader is Moses? In these first months of his leadership, some of his idiosyncrasies and patterns of his leadership style are still developing. So, at the point the Amalekites attack, Moses hasn’t earned the benefit of the doubt with the people.

Viewed through that lens, the risks Moses takes in walking away from the fight are enormous. The quarrel only a few verses prior was no small dispute; Moses feared for his life. It was no-confidence territory. Insubordination. Potential mutiny. So God gave a solution that was very public and deliberate in elevating Moses before the people.

With his leadership so recently in danger, we could forgive an inclination from Moses to solidify his leadership further with one more bold demonstration that he is in charge.

Instead, he walks away.

By delegating the key responsibility, Moses also risks the people latching onto Joshua and giving him credit, just as David’s successes would be a threat to King Saul (1 Sam 18:8) and Absalom would one day steal followers from his father, David (2 Sam 15:6). But Moses shows no fear.

Moses’ choice looks naive, uncalculated. He simply isn’t driven by politics. He clearly knows God has called him to this role, but these are God’s people. This stewardship view of leadership removes any fear that he might lose his job. Yes, Joshua might get the glory and gain some followers due to his hands-on, ground-level leadership among the people. Moses isn’t driven by those motivations, and that allows him to make a courageous choice.

I find Moses to be unpredictable, and yet also entirely predictable.

What about me?

I ask myself: Is my spiritual practice, my means of leading out of my relationship with God, predictable? Have I established a track record of obedience, of hearing God, of drawing on my time with him to take courageous steps? So, when God prompts surprising plans or methods, the one predictable thing about me is my quickness and readiness to follow?

I’ve had years with my senior leadership team, and they’ve noticed my style of decision-making and leading. Would an action like Moses’ be out of character for me? Would my team trust me implicitly?

The key seems to be Moses’ focus on following God, no matter what. My first instinct often isn’t spiritual leadership. I think things through and gather data. My responses are measured, and it’s really only in the past decade that I’ve learned to lean on my intuition. I’m still early in my journey into using discernment methods. One of Ruth Haley Barton’s foundational principles for discernment is to rely on God’s goodness and “ask God for the grace to desire his will—nothing more, nothing less, nothing else” (Pursuing God’s Will Together, p188)

Moses’ authority to lead is spiritual in nature. It comes from the fact that his followers know he has spent time with God. By Exodus 33:7-11, he will eventually establish a pattern of conversing with God face to face in the tent of meeting. It’s obvious to the people exactly how much time he spends with God; when he goes in the tent, they stand at the doors of their tents and worship. Even his countenance reveals he has been with God.

How obvious is it with your followers the amount of time you’ve spent with God?

When you have been with God and then propose a wacky idea like marching silently around a city for seven days or throwing nets on the other side of a boat or walking away from battle to climb a mountain, followers’ doubts are quelled. That predictable unpredictability is the signature of a leader worth following.


Moses on the Mountain series:

Don’t delegate this!

I have been on a journey around spiritual leadership in the past seven years. That kind of leadership doesn’t come naturally to me. In terms of my style of leadership, I’m more of a king than a prophet or priest. When it comes to spiritual leadership, there is no better model than Moses. Ever since a board member first handed me a copy of Ruth Haley Barton’s book, Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership, I have been intrigued at the depth of Moses’ relationship with God as the basis for his leadership. However, I’m not sure spiritual leadership came naturally to him either—it was an acquired discipline, skill and way of life. Over the next few weeks, I want to mine some gold from one event in particular.

In Exodus 17:8-16, Israel faces its first battle since God miraculously helped them escape Egypt and single handedly wiped out Pharaoh’s army in the Red Sea. Now, as Amalek attacks, Moses turns to someone never before mentioned in the Bible and tells him to choose men, go out and fight while he goes up on a mountain. The passage never definitively unpacks what happens at the top of that mountain.

Have you ever read a passage where numerous things don’t quite add up? You sense it needs deeper study to understand the complexity. Over the past year, I’ve been continually drawn back to Exodus 17. At one point, I read it every day for a month, writing down my discoveries. It’s not transparent, and there are layers to be peeled back. Some of the questions that triggered my study were:

  • If Moses has a “tent of meeting,” where he regularly talks to God face-to-face, why does he go up on the mountain to pray?
  • When we have so many great prayers of Moses recorded, why do we know nothing of Moses’ day on that hill other than his hand positions?
  • When he comes down at the end of the battle, why does he have a message about Amalek so completely out of touch with Joshua’s experience that day?

My study of this passage has shaped my understanding of spiritual leadership and how my role needs to shift. Let’s jump in.

Don’t delegate this!

To be effective, every leader has to ask the question, “What is it that only I can do?”, then delegate everything else. That’s the lesson Moses will get drilled into him by his father-in-law in the next chapter. The ancient historian Josephus says Moses was a general in Pharaoh’s army. Sure, he’s long retired from his own fighting days, but when Amalek attacks, he chooses to delegate on-the-ground leadership while keeping spiritual leadership responsibilities. Why?

There are some hints about the insights that lead Moses to this conclusion.

The first thing I noted is that this story begins with the word, “then.” It begs the question, “what came before this?” Moses has just produced water from a rock, but in a context where the people are angry enough to stone him. It’s a critical-enough moment in Israel’s history that the place will forever be identified with the events of that day. However, rather than naming it after the miracle, Moses names it after the danger: “Testing and Quarrelling.” There are several fundamental questions raised in that event:

  • Is God among us or not?
  • Does Moses speak for God?

Moses clearly identifies the circumstances as a spiritual attack – an indirect attack on unity, using accusation and division.

Before they have even left that site, a direct attack comes. It’s a test of a very different nature, and Moses recognizes that it needs a different response.

We also have the benefit of hearing Moses’ commentary on that moment, recorded years later. In Deuteronomy 25:17-19, he would remind Israel that, “When you were weary and worn out, [the Amalekites] met you on your journey and attacked all who were lagging behind.” Such predatory behaviour, picking off the weak and isolated, resembles Peter’s warning to believers: “Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour.” (1 Peter 5:8). 

The second half of the chapter is a continuation of the same two foundational tests: whether God is among them, and whether Moses speaks for God. Moses could dive into the task at hand, boldly leading the people in battle from the front. Instead he holds onto components that address the deeper spiritual nature of this challenge. That is the part he can’t delegate.


Moses on the Mountain series: